Switch: calendaring, contact management and mobile connectivity

Dec 21, 2006

I'd like to bust a myth that I myself had developed a while ago. I'm not really sure how it came about, but somehow I got the impression that Mac OS X is not really good with working with mobile devices for things like syncing data and using the device as a modem.

I proved myself wrong. It's drop dead easy.

Like for most people these days, be it for work or for private life, my mobile phone is my lifeline. It has all my contacts and numbers and I can call people up. And if it ever lost it, I'd be very much screwed.

I've also started to use my mobile increasingly for calendaring. It's an aging SonyEricsson T610 phone, so data entry is not really that convenient as compared to, say, a full-size mobile keyboard, let alone a computer. But it has worked kinda OK. At least the thing is always with me, always on and gives me reminders. Since I tend to forget things sometimes, it's great to have external aids for reminders.

The normal thing to do would be to sync your calendar and contacts with your computer, so that they would be backed up and you could enter events in a more convenient way on your computer and have them synced to mobile for reminders. But I need to confess something: over the past three years, I didn't sync my mobile and computer. Why? Because it was a hassle and I couldn't be bothered to figure it out.

My calendaring and contact management only consisted of my mobile until I started using a Mac. Why? Because I don't like using Outlook for e-mail. I like Thunderbird as you may have noticed, and that's what I use. But TB is only good for email, it doesn't have a calendar part and its contact management is not really good. But at the same time, people kept sending me meeting invites that I needed to keep track of.

So here's how it worked. I used Thunderbird daily. For calendar, I had to fire up Outlook separately if I needed to check or add something. (I didn't keep it running all the time to save some resources.) Needless to say, Outlook is pretty bloated so it takes ages to start up. And neither the calendar nor contacts were synced to my mobile. Because it was a hassle to set up. Bluetooth is fine on a PC, and I could do simple things like if I snapped a photo with the mobile, I could use Bluetooth for transferring the file to PC. And with some messing around, I could also set up a Bluetooth modem (although all that COM ports thing is kinda messy), so I could go on the Internet when wifi isn't in sight. So this whole thing wasn't really optimal.

Now... enter Mac OS X. It has Address Book and iCal as two little stand-alone neato applications that don't take ages to start up. I can keep using my beloved Thunderbird for e-mail, and I can manage contacts in iCal and Address Book.

This is all good. But the greatest "wow" came when I was setting up iSync. I had no idea how to do it, I just heard that there's this iSync thing that can, well, sync stuff to your mobile. So I fired it up.

I then had to configure my device. Can't really remember what this one-time wizard was about, except that it was really easy and straightforward. Ah, it was something like it asked me to set the phone in Discovery mode, and then gave me a passkey for pairing Bluetooth, and that was it.

I was completely amazed. It was simply too easy and it worked. There were no stupid wizards and ten-step screens with a hundred options that you had to go through.

But the actual syncing experience is even cooler. It identifies your phone and shows you a picture of it. Little things like that really do a lot to make the experience just smoother. (My phone has a silver cover instead of the purple one, but you get the idea.) Once you want to sync, you just fire up iSync and hit "sync" and it goes through the sync automatically and that's it.

Try to beat that, Windows. Especially without Outlook (all this comes in the base system with Mac).

Now... there is one thing that could be improved, and that I can probably do myself. I haven't yet found a way to automate the sync. I need to manually run iSync at this time, but it should run every day at the hours that I schedule. The ultimate automation app is Automator, but it doesn't know anything about iSync, so I'll probably need to dig deeper with the likes of Quicksilver or AppleScript. Any good readymade simple solutions for this?

Invites and the bug

Ahh, it can't be perfect now, can it? Of course not. There's this one bug. Well, before the bug is something that you can't do with Thunderbird easily. People send you invites through Outlook/Exchange and they typically come as what's called "winmail.dat". Thunderbird just shows you the attachment but can't do anything with it. But for Apple Mail, there's this OMiC thing that can take a "winmail.dat" and turn it into a meeting invite right there. So when someone sends me an invite, I just fire up Mail and import it into the calendar.

And the bug is a pretty annoying one. With some invites from some people, it tells me that I'm not the one who the invite is addressed to, even though the "to" e-mail is very clearly listed on the "Me" contact card in Address Book. I haven't yet found a solution for this, apart from manually re-creating that invite. But I tend to get these buggy invites fairly seldom so that it wouldn't really bother me that much.